There is certainly no more emotional time of year than Christmas. Holiday feelings present themselves, as if on cue, by such cultural symbols as red and green sweaters or table decorations, fake snow in store windows, toy soldiers and nutcrackers, George Bailey fighting to save his Building & Loan in Bedford Falls, Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchitt and Tiny Tim, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye trying to arrange one more tribute to General Waverly at the ski lodge, or any number of tunes which we’re likely to hear in virtually any public place beginning the day after Thanksgiving.
Intense feelings are aroused by Christmas traditions unique to particular families, even if the meaning has long since been forgotten. I once heard about a family for whom Christmas doesn’t happen until a blob of peanut butter is spread on somebody’s nose—nobody can say why anymore. For another family, it was a solemn Christmas ritual to slice of an inch from the top of the ham before putting it in the oven. This went on for years before somebody eventually explained that, decades earlier, in an apartment none of the family lived in anymore, the oven was exceptionally small, so they had to cut the top off the ham!
For each of us here tonight, this complex of feelings and symbols supplies us with a very personal signal that Christmas has officially arrived. For me, it’s when I here the last verse of the hymn “Once In Royal David’s City,” with a certain organ accompaniment and vocal descant. It’s like a remotely-triggered bomb in my heart: When my ears hear that music, the bomb goes off, and, for me, it’s finally Christmas. And the feelings associated with Christmas are, of course, positive ones: love and peace, good will and good cheer, cooperation and courtesy, festivity and joy.
Joy, in fact, is why we are here at this hour, doing what we’re doing. Holy Mother Church calls us to rejoice tonight, with an intensity that is matched only by the Great Vigil of Easter. The cathedral is decked out in its most splendid finery—vestments, flowers, silver, and polished brass. Our most treasured music and our richest ceremony are on display tonight. We hear scriptures that speak of Good News. We sing “Gloria” and “Alleluia,” two of the most ancient and universal Christian shouts of joyful praise. In everything we do, we are proclaiming, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come; let earth receive her King.”
But as we all know, Christmas also has a dark side. Ask any mental health care provider and you will learn that this is the time of year when their client load reaches its annual peak. People who are estranged from their families, or prevented by geography and finances from being with them, experience a profoundly painful form of loneliness at Christmastime. The incidence of suicide tends to spike upward during the month of December. And it is during this season that those who are already vulnerable to economic exploitation are in an even more precarious position than usual. The urge to provide children with exactly what will make their eyes light up on Christmas morning is virtually irresistible for a loving parent. This urge is responsible for a mountain of credit card debt that can take literally a lifetime to get free from.
So, maybe you don’t really much feel like rejoicing tonight. Maybe your credit cards are overworked getting ready for tomorrow morning. Maybe you’ve already eaten enough junk food at grazing parties to ruin your health for months to come. Maybe you’ve suffered a loss this past year that makes any Christmas joy fade into the background. Perhaps you are facing a crisis that requires a difficult decision, and you just don’t know what you’re going to do, and Christmas is, at best, a temporary distraction from oppressive anxiety. Maybe you are aware of a personal moral or ethical failure on your part that makes Christmas rejoicing seem hypocritical. Perhaps you are bitter about a relationship gone sour, or fond hopes that never quite seem to materialize, remaining just beyond your grasp. I could go on all night—there are plenty of reasons why any one of us is not prepared for the demand that we rejoice on this feast of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What, then, is the Church’s response to those who don’t feel like rejoicing? Well, there are two. The first one is a bit of a horse pill. We’re going to need a lot of buttermilk to wash it down. Put simply, it’s this: It doesn’t matter how you feel. Rejoice anyway. It’s your job. Have you ever noticed how sublimely apathetic the church calendar is toward the feelings of those who gather for worship? There is no set of instructions in the front of the Prayer Book that says to the priest, “Use these prayers, or these readings, or these hymns if you think people are in a good mood, and these others if you suspect they may be a little cranky.” The ushers didn’t take a survey at the door when you arrived tonight, and say,
“Pessimists to the left, optimists to the right.”
The liturgy is not like eating at a five star restaurant, where you can order anything you’re hungry for off an extensive menu. No, it’s more like Aunt Betty’s Boarding House, where, if it’s Tuesday, meatloaf is what’s for dinner. If this is December 24, it must be Christmas Eve, so rejoicing is on the menu tonight, regardless of whether you or I are in the mood for it. And the reason is pretty much the same as why Aunt Betty serves spinach with her meatloaf— “Because it’s good for you!” God knows, the Church knows, that rejoicing is good for us, so we are commanded to rejoice.
Public worship isn’t really about sharing our moods with God, anyway. There’s certainly room for that in private prayer, but that’s not what corporate worship is for. Worship is about God sharing his moods with us. If it’s Advent or Ash Wednesday, we confess our sins and ask for the grace to repent. If it’s the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, we just keep on keeping on; everything’s normal. If it’s Easter or Christmas . . . we rejoice. In the end, it’s God’s mood, not ours, that’s important, and we do well to put our souls in phase with the rhythms of God’s heart. The liturgy is what helps us do just that.
But there’s another response that Holy Mother Church makes to those who don’t feel like rejoicing tonight, and this one is much softer and more sympathetic and understanding and appealing. To quote the medieval English mystic Julian of Norwich, “All is well. All is well. All manner of things shall be well.” And that isn’t just a 14th century version of “Don’t worry, be happy.” It’s much more profound than that, because it’s based on the solid foundation of the very reason for our rejoicing: God is with us. The Word has become flesh. The gap between heaven and earth has been forever bridged. Alienation and fear and despair do not have the last word. God has the last word, and that word is reconciliation, that word is hope, that word is love, that word is—yes—joy. We are invited to rejoice because there is more than enough reason to rejoice, no matter what else may be going on in our lives.
Christmas may be full of feelings, but Christmas joy is not merely a good mood, or sentimentality, or being happy that you got a raise, or rekindled an old flame, or solved a problem or because of any other conceivable circumstance in our concrete experience. Christmas joy happens, not only in spite of, but in the face of, all the other “stuff” that happens. In fact, the more such “stuff” our lives are full of, the more clearly we can see both our need for rejoicing and our reason for rejoicing. So, if you’re happy tonight because things are going well for you, then I give thanks with you. If you’re sad tonight because things are going poorly for you, then I weep with you. But in either case, I’m going to rejoice tonight, because it’s good for me, and I invite you to do the same, because it’s good for you, and because “All is well, all is well, all manner of things shall be well.”
The Word is made flesh: Come, let us adore him. Amen.